Posted by Elisabeth Leamy, Fri Dec 26 2008, 10:08pm

Contrary to popular belief, stores don't have to accept returns

Contrary to popular belief, stores don't have to accept returns. At all. Stores are allowed to set their own return policies. As long as they post their policy, they can do whatever they want. Be sure to read the signs, read the receipt or ask the cashier before you buy. Stores seem to be getting stricter about returns. Too many have been burned by customers who bring items back five years later or shoplift items then try to return them for cash. All the more reason why you need to be prepared if you want to have many happy returns.

Of course, a receipt is your ticket to a successful return. I save mine in an accordion file organized by month. If you're buying a gift, more and more stores now offer gift receipts. Get in the habit of asking for one. If you lose your receipt and you paid by credit card, try taking your credit card statement to the store as proof of purchase.

If you don't have a receipt, you may have to settle for an exchange rather than a return. And be prepared to accept the lowest price at which the product has been sold in the past year. If the cashier claims the store doesn't carry the item, ask to see the department manager, who should be more familiar with the merchandise.

I once bought my husband about ten pairs of shorts to replace the ratty ones he insisted on wearing in public. I cut the price tags off because they were a gift for his birthday. Some of the shorts didn't fit. (or were too nice for his tastes!) I had my receipt, but the store balked at giving me a refund because the tags were missing. These days I just cut off just the price part of the tag and leave the product numbers and bar codes intact.

Be sure to save all original packaging until you know the product works. If the item doesn't work when you buy it or it breaks down soon after, you should be able to take it back to the store rather than going through the rigmarole of contacting the manufacturer. Be pleasantly persistent.

If you have trouble returning something at the store level and you're certain you are in the right, write to the company president and/or the customer relations department. If the item actually broke, try this: tape a piece of the product to your letter! If you don't get a response, write another letter and "cc" this one to the Better Business Bureau and your county and state consumer protection offices.

Finally, try to make returns when the store won't be crowded. That way the cashier will be in a better mood and less likely to turn you down out of spite. The cashier may even be willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, because there won't be a whole line of people to overhear and demand the same favor.

1. Find out the return policy before you buy.
2. Make a system for saving receipts or always pay by credit card and save your statements.
3. Keep the original packaging and the price tags until you're sure you won't need to make a return.

The Better Business Bureau and your county and state consumer protection offices are a good start.